Support in the early years
The information on this page is for families in England only. I live in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales.
Most children start school at some point in the school year when they turn five, but from 0-5 different early years options are available. This page explains how these early years settings support children with special educational needs (SEN).
From birth to two
If your child has complex needs, these may have been picked up at birth by health professionals or through screening tests. Your own observations of your baby as they develop are important. If you have any worries about your child's development, it's important to share these with your doctor or health visitor.
Some children with SEN may be diagnosed with a medical condition, but a child does not need a diagnosis to have SEN.
Your child may be referred to specialists such as educational psychologists or speech and language therapists. In some areas you may be able to access a home-visiting education service called Portage.
Early years settings can include childminders, day nurseries, pre-schools, holiday playschemes and childcare in your own home. The law refers to these as "early years settings" or "providers." For more, see our childcare webpages.
Some providers specialise in support for disabled children and children with special educational needs. If your child has complex SEN they may be offered a place in a specialist nursery.
Your local authority has a duty to make sure there are enough early years options for all families in the area who need it and must help you to find one that is right for your family.
Mainstream settings must take steps to include and support children with SEN and any medical condition they have.
The setting cannot refuse to take your child because they are disabled or have SEN. Local authorities must make sure that all settings that provide free early education receive additional funding to support those children who need extra help.
All early years providers must follow the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework. This includes having arrangements in place to identify and support disabled children and children who have, or may have, SEN and medical conditions.
Early years settings will use this framework to continually observe and review how your child is learning, and parents' insights are an important part of this. The framework includes two formal reviews:
- one at age two, looking at language and communication and physical, personal, social and emotional development
- one at age five, looking at literacy, mathematics, understanding the world and expressive arts and design.
What support can I expect my child to receive?
Early years settings that receive government funding must have a Special Educational Needs Coordinator or SENCO. This is a teacher who is responsible for making sure all the children with SEN have the support they need.
Your child should also have a named keyworker - this is the person who is responsible for your child on a daily basis. This is the person to speak to first if you have any worries or just want to talk about how your child is doing.
The approach to support children with SEN includes four stages:
The early years setting, together with the SENCO and parents, should work to explore the cause of any learning difficulty or delay.
Staff should talk to you about your child and the extra help you think they need and seek more information if needed. For example, they may ask an educational psychologist to visit and advise them how to help your child. There should be a written plan setting out this support.
Depending on their needs, your child may receive extra help from an adult or help in a small group, for example to learn language skills. Sometimes a specialist may work with your child directly or set up a programme and train staff to follow it.
The setting should agree with you when your child's progress will be reviewed. The review is a chance to look at your child's progress, whether the support is working and whether your child needs more or a different kind of help.
What if my child needs a lot more help?
During your child's early years you may be thinking ahead about where they will go to primary school. Here are some answers to the most common questions we hear.
Is a mainstream or special school best for my child?
The type of school your child goes to will depend on their needs, your preference and the schools in your area.
Your child may learn well in a mainstream school with extra help from staff within or outside the school. Find out about support in a mainstream school.
In this podcast, our parent adviser Michaela shares her top tips for parents whose children are about to start a new school.
If your child has complex needs, a special school with specially trained teachers, therapists and equipment may suit them best.
It's a good idea to visit different schools in your area to get an idea of what kind of school would be right for your child.
How do I find out about primary schools in my area?
Your local authority will send you information about how to apply for a primary school reception place, along with details of all the local mainstream primary schools, in the year before your child is due to start school. You can also find this information in the education section of your local authority website.
I've found a really good special school - how can my child get a place there?
Nearly all children who go to special schools will have an Education, Health or Care plan, which describes the extra help they need and names the school they will go to. You can say in the plan if you would prefer your child to go to a special school. In some situations the local authority can refuse the school of your choice. Our education advisers can help you understand your rights if you're in this situation.
I've accepted a place at the local mainstream school, but I don't think my child will be ready to start in September.
Moving to primary school is a big step for all children, and all schools will have arrangements to help new pupils settle in. Talk to the school about your child's particular needs and what help the school can give them at the start of the new school year.
Your child doesn't have to be in education until they reach compulsory school age, which is at the start of the term after their 5th birthday. You could ask for your child to go to school part time until then. Alternatively, you can also ask the school if your child can delay their start until later in the school year.
If you have any questions about starting school, contact our freephone helpline for advice.
Find out more about applying for a school place and choosing the right school.
Read our information about education in Wales.
In Scotland, the system of support for children with additional support needs is called additional support for learning. You can read more about it on the Enquire website.